Utility companies hunker down for the storms


Utility workers from various states across the country wait to enter the city of New Orleans through a security checkpoint in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last fall. Florida's utility companies have been working to improve hurricane preparedness in a number of different areas.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 2:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 2:13 p.m.

With two years of dangerous hurricanes behind them and warnings that more could be on the way, Florida's utility companies are strengthening infrastructure, reminding residents to check trees and reviewing repair plans as the state heads into another storm season.

Earlier this year, Florida Power & Light Co. announced it was developing a 10-year comprehensive plan to “harden” its electrical system. The company is trying to increase the amount of underground infrastructure and is upgrading equipment and facilities to withstand higher winds, up to 150 mph in certain areas.

More than 56 percent of GRU's primary system is underground, said Reid Rivers, the company's energy delivery engineering manager. Both city and county development rules require underground lines, although Rivers noted underground equipment isn't immune from problems. If rising water covers an area, workers can't immediately get to those underground systems to make repairs.

After the 2004 hurricane season, GRU also started making changes to equipment in areas pinpointed for repair problems. The company has added insulated cable in some locations, which helps protect lines from falling tree limbs, and reduced line exposure by shortening lines that ran for longer stretches. With shorter lines, Rivers said even if there is damage not as many customers are impacted.

Areas where the company has made some of these changes include the Florida Park subdivision west of NW 13th Street; the Carol Estates, Highland Court Manor and Pleasant Acres area between Main Street and Waldo Road; the Robinson Heights subdivision off SE 15th Street and businesses along NW 13th Street.

But, even with improvements, utility officials said some trees present a persistent danger to their infrastructure.

“The problem utilities run into are basically caused by things outside of the right-of-way area, for example falling trees,” said Wayne Maddox, a spokesman for the Clay Electric Cooperative. Concerned over the danger some trees pose, the company launched a program in 2003 that has tried to educate land and homeowners about the need for tree trimming or removal.

John Tisdale, Gainesville Regional Utilities' electric transmission distribution manager, said, “As a result of 2004 and 2005, the issue has come to the attention of customers that they are much more proactive in recognizing danger trees.”

That's meant more phone calls to the company reporting overhanging limbs and dead branches.

“We certainly try to accommodate them as best we can. But on private property, we can't trim. A lot of customers are going outside themselves and trimming,” he said.

While FPL said it is increasing effort to clear foliage near lines, GRU and Clay Electric also said they're also making plans in case repairs are needed after storms.

Recent hurricane season have taught GRU how to improve contact with out-of-state utility companies that came to the area's assistance when Gainesville was hit by back-to-back storms in 2004.

Maddox said, “In our case, it provided the opportunity to review how we assess the damage that has occurred to the system. What we have done is devoted more personnel to that stage so we can get a quicker assessment of any damage to our system and a quicker restoration of power.”

Lise Fisher can be reached at (352) 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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